Scarcity, Precarity, and Simile: Reading the Iliad

Homer, Iliad 12.421-426

“But, just as two men strive over boundary stones,
As they hold their yardsticks in hand in a shared field
and they struggle over a fair share of the limited earth,
So did the fortifications separate them.
But over them still they struck one another
On their oxhide circles and winged shields.”

ἀλλ’ ὥς τ’ ἀμφ’ οὔροισι δύ’ ἀνέρε δηριάασθον
μέτρ’ ἐν χερσὶν ἔχοντες ἐπιξύνῳ ἐν ἀρούρῃ,
ὥ τ’ ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ ἐρίζητον περὶ ἴσης,
ὣς ἄρα τοὺς διέεργον ἐπάλξιες· οἳ δ’ ὑπὲρ αὐτέων
δῄουν ἀλλήλων ἀμφὶ στήθεσσι βοείας
ἀσπίδας εὐκύκλους λαισήϊά τε πτερόεντα.

Schol. T ad Il. 12.423b

“This is about the intensity. For those who possess more might look down on [fighting like this?”

ex. ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ: εἰς ἐπίτασιν· οἱ γὰρ πλείονα κεκτημένοι ἴσως καταφρονοῦσιν. T

As some already know, I am a Homerist by practice and training, which means I have spent the better part of the past 20 years, reading, thinking, and writing about the Homeric epics. After all this, I am still regularly surprised by how much I don’t understand and often shocked by the fact that I have spent so many years doing just this, re-reading, being surprised, and then trying to learn something new.

The truth is, there was a time when I had little regard for the Homeric epics. I started reading them because I wanted to understand the ‘literature’ that followed them. About the same time I started reading Homer in the original, which was transformative on its own, I read both epics again in translation. The oceanic gap between the experience of the Greek and the translations rattled my confidence in my own aesthetic judgments (and in the act of translation).

But the difference between Homeric phraseology and Vergil (the Latin author with whom I had the most familiarity at the time) was striking: nearly every line of Homer is a self-contained unit of sense. Rather than being hypotactic (subordinating and delaying meaning), Homeric poetry is paratactic, building by adding. It is useful to know the language and stories of the Iliad before you start reading; but it is not necessary for enjoyment: the epic constructs itself in front of you as it tells its tale.

The simile above is one of the first things that I carried around with me everyday once I started reading Homeric Greek (I eventually made investigating it into a senior thesis). It is such a small, nearly forgettable moment. But its simplicity belies a compact and complex representation of the way Homeric poetry works and why it still matters.

In the middle of the battle over the walls the Greek have constructed against the resurgent Trojan defenders, the warring sides are compared to two men fighting over measuring their share of a common field. Even to this day, this comparison seems so disarmingly true as it reduces the grand themes of the struggles between Trojans and Greek, Agamemnon and Achilles, to that of two men over shared resources. The Iliad, at one level, is all about scarcity: scarcity of goods, of women, of honor, of life-time, and, ultimately, the scarcity of fame.

This simile works through metonymy to represent not just the action on the field of battle at this moment, but the conditions that prompt the greater conflict and those that constrain human life. It leaps through time and space and indicates how this poem differs from simple myths. The normal mortals who love this poem aren’t kings or demigods; we live small, sometimes desperate lives, the conditions of which are improved or exacerbated by how well we work together to make fair shares of our public goods.

The scholiast’s comments above, then, are doubly laughable. If I am reading them right (and the verb καταφρονοῦσιν without an object can be annoying), the commentator is imagining that these men in the simile are struggling over this small bit of land because they are poor and that wealthier men would not bother. Not only is this a tragic misunderstanding of human nature (wait tables or tend bar for only a few weeks and you will discover that the good tippers are not the wealthiest ones), but it is a poor reading of the epic, where the wealthiest and most powerful men alive are more than happy to keep fighting and ensuring that their people die.

The point of the simile is that it provides a meeting point between the actors of the poem and the worlds of the audiences; the line that separates imaginative story in the audience’s minds from the lives they live becomes permeable and the hero meets the mortal in the shared experience. This is how the world becomes a part of the story and how it also  shapes the poem.

Right after this, there’s another simile.

Iliad 12.427-438

“Many were struck across their flesh by pitiless bronze
Whenever they turned and bared their backs
As they struggled, although many were also struck through their shields.
The towers and walls were decorated everywhere with the blood
Of men from both sides, from Trojans and Achaeans.

Yet, they still could not force the Achaians to flee—
No, it held as when an honest weaving woman holds
The balance and draws out the weight and the wool on both sides
to make them equal so she might earn some wretched wage for her children.
So the battle and the war was stretched even on each side
Until Zeus gave the glory over to Hektor
Priam’s son, who first broke through the wall of the Achaeans.”

πολλοὶ δ’ οὐτάζοντο κατὰ χρόα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ,
ἠμὲν ὅτεῳ στρεφθέντι μετάφρενα γυμνωθείη
μαρναμένων, πολλοὶ δὲ διαμπερὲς ἀσπίδος αὐτῆς.
πάντῃ δὴ πύργοι καὶ ἐπάλξιες αἵματι φωτῶν
ἐρράδατ’ ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἀπὸ Τρώων καὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν.
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἐδύναντο φόβον ποιῆσαι ᾿Αχαιῶν,
ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα γυνὴ χερνῆτις ἀληθής,
ἥ τε σταθμὸν ἔχουσα καὶ εἴριον ἀμφὶς ἀνέλκει
ἰσάζουσ’, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα μισθὸν ἄρηται·
ὣς μὲν τῶν ἐπὶ ἶσα μάχη τέτατο πτόλεμός τε,
πρίν γ’ ὅτε δὴ Ζεὺς κῦδος ὑπέρτερον ῞Εκτορι δῶκε
Πριαμίδῃ, ὃς πρῶτος ἐσήλατο τεῖχος ᾿Αχαιῶν.

Schol D + bT ad Il. 12.433-435 ex.

“The equal balance of those fighting, [Homer] compared to the beam of a loom, again. For nothing is so precisely similar to an even balance. And the one weighing this out is not the mistress of the household—for she does not often trouble this much for so small an equal bit—nor is it one of the household maids—for they would not seek to make so precise a measure since they are fed by the household’s master and do not risk their nourishment if they mess up on the loom weights—but it is a woman for hire who must provide what is needed for living by the effort of her hands.”

ex. | D ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα<—μισθὸν ἄρη-ται>: πάλιν τὸ ἰσοπαλὲς τῶν μαχομένων παρέβαλε ζυγῷ· οὐδὲν γὰρ οὕτως ἀκριβὲς πρὸς ἰσότητα. καὶ ἡ ταλαντεύουσα οὐκ ἔστι δέσποινα οἰκίας (ταύτην γὰρ οὐ λυπεῖ πολλάκις τὸ παρὰ βραχὺ ἴσον), ἀλλ’ οὐδὲ θεραπαινίς (οὐ γὰρ αὗται ζητοῦσι τὸ ἀκριβὲς εἰς τοσοῦτον, ἅτε δὴ ὑπὸ τοῦ δεσπότου τρεφόμεναι b [BCE3E4] T καὶ οὐκ ἐν τῷ διαμαρτεῖν περὶ τὸν σταθμὸν κινδυνεύουσαι περὶ τροφήν), T χερνῆτις (433) δέ, ἡ χειρὶ τὰ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν πορίζουσα, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα (435) φησίν.

This passage has long  moved me too because, as with the earlier simile, the great ‘epic’ themes and images of war were reduced to something simple, daily, and completely understandable. Even in the ancient world where many members of the audiences probably had considerably more experience of violence than we do and where most aristocratic audience members would certainly have nothing but contempt for working for a living, many probably heard a crucial echo of their own lives in this surprising comparison.

I also appreciate the way that the scholiasts here home in on how dire this woman’s position is, making the dubious but nonetheless striking claim that the household servants led less precarious lives than the woman of the simile who draws the weight so precisely because her pay—and the lives of her children—depend upon it. In a crucial way, this simile evokes the same sense of scarcity as that of the men on the field—but it adds that an all too familiar anxiety from the precarity that emerges when one lives constantly with the sense of how scarce those things we value are.

It may seem a stretch, but the image of the weaving woman evokes for me the creative power of women presented elsewhere in Homer–Helen weaves the story of her own kleos, Penelope weaves shroud whose images are never revealed. In a way, the tension prepared by the woman’s hands within the simile is a comparison for the balance of war and a metaphor for an act of creation. The epic’s plot and the audience’s experience are similarly drawn out in the narrator’s hands.

Indeed, the scarcity and precarity evoked by this simile and the one that precedes it extends the transitional moment begun with the image of the farmers to create anticipatory tension in the audience. At the epic’s middle, before we move from book 12 to 13 and to the slaughter of the Achaeans at the ships, the balance hangs ever briefly before it breaks. Hektor surges through the Achaean fortification: the balance of action fails just as the balance of the plot will too—the story of Achilles’ withdrawal will now translate into the slaughter he asked Zeus to precipitate leading to the death of Patroklos, Hektor and, ultimately, Achilles too.

These similes stand at the middle of the poem and convey the sense of tension at the passing of this moment and the spinning of the tale itself. The nameless men and the nameless woman stand in contrast to the named heroes who will suffer and die in the following books. But they are also vehicles moving between the lives of the audiences and the heroes’ deeds marking off the small stakes for which all are struggling and the limited life by which we are all constrained.

 

 

Venetus A Book 12
Iliad 12, from the Venetus A Manuscript (via the Homer Multitext Project)

Like Land to a Drowning (Wo)man?

Odyssey 23.230-242

“So she spoke, and his longing for mourning swelled within him—
He wept holding the wife fit to his heart, a woman who knew careful thoughts.

As when the land appears welcome to men as the swim
Whose well-made ship Poseidon has dashed apart on the sea,
As it is driven by the wind and a striking wave.
Then few men flee from the grey sea to the shore
As they swim and the bodies are covered with brine on their skin,
They happily climb on the shore, escaping evil.

So welcome a sight was her husband to her as she looked upon him
And she would not pull her white arms away from his neck.”

ὣς φάτο, τῷ δ’ ἔτι μᾶλλον ὑφ’ ἵμερον ὦρσε γόοιο·
κλαῖε δ’ ἔχων ἄλοχον θυμαρέα, κεδνὰ ἰδυῖαν.
ὡς δ’ ὅτ’ ἂν ἀσπάσιος γῆ νηχομένοισι φανήῃ,
ὧν τε Ποσειδάων εὐεργέα νῆ’ ἐνὶ πόντῳ
ῥαίσῃ, ἐπειγομένην ἀνέμῳ καὶ κύματι πηγῷ·
παῦροι δ’ ἐξέφυγον πολιῆς ἁλὸς ἤπειρόνδε
νηχόμενοι, πολλὴ δὲ περὶ χροῒ τέτροφεν ἅλμη,
ἀσπάσιοι δ’ ἐπέβαν γαίης, κακότητα φυγόντες·
ὣς ἄρα τῇ ἀσπαστὸς ἔην πόσις εἰσοροώσῃ,
δειρῆς δ’ οὔ πω πάμπαν ἀφίετο πήχεε λευκώ.

This simile is exceptional because it starts out making us think that it is about Odysseus but then shifts during its telling to be about Penelope’s reaction.

Image result for Medieval Manuscript woman swimming
St Omer Psalter, England (Norfolk), c. 1330-c. 1440, Yates Thompson MS 14, f. 70v 

 

The Arrow Flight of Songs

Henry W. Longfellow “The Arrow and the Song”,

I breathed a song into the air
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong
That it can follow the flight of song?

Horace, Ars Poetica 347

“The string does not always return the sound that the hand and mind desire”.

neque chorda sonum reddit quem volt manus et mens.

Homer, Odyssey 21.407-409

“Just as a man who knows both lyre and song
easily stretches a string on a new peg
as he attaches the twisted sheep-gut to both sides
just so, without haste, Odysseus strung the great bow”

ὡς ὅτ’ ἀνὴρ φόρμιγγος ἐπιστάμενος καὶ ἀοιδῆς
ῥηϊδίως ἐτάνυσσε νέῳ περὶ κόλλοπι χορδήν,
ἅψας ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἐϋστρεφὲς ἔντερον οἰός,
ὣς ἄρ’ ἄτερ σπουδῆς τάνυσεν μέγα τόξον ᾿Οδυσσεύς.

Pindar, Olympian 2, 83-88

“Many are the swift arrows
Within the quiver
Under my arm—
They speak to those who understand,
But they lack interpreters
In every direction. Wise is the one who knows many things
by nature…”

…. πολλά μοι ὑπ’
ἀγκῶνος ὠκέα βέλη
ἔνδον ἐντὶ φαρέτρας
φωνάεντα συνετοῖσιν· ἐς δὲ τὸ πὰν ἑρμανέων
χατίζει. σοφὸς ὁ πολλὰ εἰδὼς φυᾷ·

Schol. Ad Pin. Ol. 2

“Swift arrows”: these are an allegory for poems from an archery metaphor. The quiver is his mind; the arrows are words.”

A ὠκέα βέλη: ἀλληγορεῖ ἀπὸ τῶν τόξων μεταφέρων ἐπὶ τὰ ποιήματα· φαρέτρα μὲν γὰρ ἡ διάνοια, βέλη δὲ οἱ λόγοι.

Image result for ancient greek archery vase

 

Happy As a Man Relieved of Disease

Homer, Odyssey 5.388-399

“Then for two days and two nights he was tossed about
On the swollen wave, and often his heart was expecting destruction.
But when well-tressed Dawn rose on the third day
And the wind stopped as a windless peace overtook the sea,
Then as he scanned sharply around he saw land so near
On the horizon as he was lifted by a great wave.

Then, just as welcome as the life of a father appears
To his children when he has been stretched out sick suffering strong pains,
Worn down for a long time—and some hateful god afflicts him,
And it so welcome when the gods relieve him of this evil,
That’s how welcome the sight of the land and forest was to Odysseus.
And he swam, struggling to reach the shore with his feet.”

ἔνθα δύω νύκτας δύο τ’ ἤματα κύματι πηγῷ
πλάζετο, πολλὰ δέ οἱ κραδίη προτιόσσετ’ ὄλεθρον.
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δὴ τρίτον ἦμαρ ἐϋπλόκαμος τέλεσ’ ᾿Ηώς,
καὶ τότ’ ἔπειτ’ ἄνεμος μὲν ἐπαύσατο ἠδὲ γαλήνη
ἔπλετο νηνεμίη· ὁ δ’ ἄρα σχεδὸν εἴσιδε γαῖαν
ὀξὺ μάλα προϊδών, μεγάλου ὑπὸ κύματος ἀρθείς.
ὡς δ’ ὅτ’ ἂν ἀσπάσιος βίοτος παίδεσσι φανήῃ
πατρός, ὃς ἐν νούσῳ κεῖται κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων,
δηρὸν τηκόμενος, στυγερὸς δέ οἱ ἔχραε δαίμων,
ἀσπάσιον δ’ ἄρα τόν γε θεοὶ κακότητος ἔλυσαν,
ὣς ᾿Οδυσῆ’ ἀσπαστὸν ἐείσατο γαῖα καὶ ὕλη,
νῆχε δ’ ἐπειγόμενος ποσὶν ἠπείρου ἐπιβῆναι.

Schol. PQ 5.394

“The poet furnishes the most noble examples using [stories of parents] for  how it is right to act toward parents. Also in the Iliad: “they say that Menoitios still lives, and Peleus Aiakidês lives among the Myrmidons, and we have grief for both of them especially.”

ὡς δ’ ὅταν ἀσπάσιος] κάλλιστα παραδείγματα παρὰ γονέων χρηστῶς ἐκτίθεται ὁ ποιητὴς παιδεύων, πῶς ἔχειν πρὸς γονέας δίκαιον· καὶ “ζώειν μὰν ἔτι φασὶ Μενοίτιον, ζώει δ’ Αἰακίδης Πηλεὺς μετὰ Μυρμιδόνεσσι, τῶν κε μάλ’ ἀμφοτέρων ἀκαχοίμεθα” (Il. π,
14.). P.Q.

Schol. PQ ad. Od. 5.398

“When he was wasting away with Kalypso, [Odysseus] was longing for Ithaka, but now that he is in the sea he doesn’t long to find the city, but only the dry substance itself.”

ἀσπαστὸν ἐείσατο γαῖα] παρὰ Καλυψοῖ μὲν διατρίβων ᾿Ιθάκην ποθεῖ, ἐν θαλάττῃ δ’ ὢν οὐχ ὅπως πόλιν, ἀλλ’ αὐτὴν μόνην τὴν ξηρὰν οὐσίαν. P.Q.

Jan Styka - Goddess Calypso promises immortality to Odysseus. Tags: odysseus, ulysses, odyssey, calypso, kalypso,
Jan Styka, Calypso Offering Odysseus Immortality

Scarcity, Simile, and Reading the Iliad

Homer, Iliad 12.421-426

“But, just as two men strive over boundary stones,
As they hold their yardsticks in hand in a shared field
and they struggle over a fair share of the limited earth,
So did the fortifications separate them.
But over them still they struck one another
On their oxhide circles and winged shields.”

ἀλλ’ ὥς τ’ ἀμφ’ οὔροισι δύ’ ἀνέρε δηριάασθον
μέτρ’ ἐν χερσὶν ἔχοντες ἐπιξύνῳ ἐν ἀρούρῃ,
ὥ τ’ ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ ἐρίζητον περὶ ἴσης,
ὣς ἄρα τοὺς διέεργον ἐπάλξιες· οἳ δ’ ὑπὲρ αὐτέων
δῄουν ἀλλήλων ἀμφὶ στήθεσσι βοείας
ἀσπίδας εὐκύκλους λαισήϊά τε πτερόεντα.

Schol. T ad Il. 12.423b

“This is about the intensity. For those who possess more might look down on [fighting like this?”

ex. ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ: εἰς ἐπίτασιν· οἱ γὰρ πλείονα κεκτημένοι ἴσως καταφρονοῦσιν. T

As some already know, I am a Homerist by practice and training, which means I have spent the better part of the past 20 years, reading, thinking, and writing about the Homeric epics. After all this, I am still regularly surprised by how much I don’t understand and often shocked by the fact that I have spent so many years doing just this.

The truth is, there was a time when I had little regard for the Homeric epics. I started reading them because I wanted to understand everything that came after. About the same time I started reading Homer in the original, which was transformative on its own, I read both epics again in translation. The oceanic gap between the experience of the Greek and the translations rattled my confidence in my own aesthetic judgments (and in the act of translation).

But the difference between Homeric phraseology and Vergil (the Latin author with whom I had the most familiarity at the time) was striking: nearly every line of Homer is a self-contained unit of sense. Rather than being hypotactic (subordinating and delaying meaning), Homeric poetry is paratactic, building by adding. It is useful to know the language and stories of the Iliad before you start reading; but it is not necessary for enjoyment: the epic constructs itself in front of you as it tells its tale.

The simile above is one of the first things that I carried around with me everyday once I started reading Homeric Greek (I eventually made investigating it into a senior thesis). It is such a small, nearly forgettable moment. But its simplicity belies a compact and complex representation of the way Homeric poetry works and why it still matters.

In the middle of the battle over the walls the Greek have constructed against the resurgent Trojan defenders, the warring sides are compared to two men fighting over measuring their share of a common field. Even to this day, this comparison seems so disarmingly true as it reduces the grand themes of the struggles between Trojans and Greek, Agamemnon and Achilles, to that of two men over shared resources. The Iliad, at one level, is all about scarcity: scarcity of goods, of women, of honor, of life-time, and, ultimately, the scarcity of fame.

This simile works through metonymy to represent not just the action on the field of battle at this moment, but the conditions that prompt the greater conflict and those that constrain human life. It leaps through time and space and indicates how this poem differs from simple myths. The normal mortals who love this poem aren’t kings or demigods; we live small, sometimes desperate lives, the conditions of which are improved or exacerbated by how well we work together to make fair shares of our public goods.

The scholiast’s comments above, then, are doubly laughable. If I am reading them right (and the verb καταφρονοῦσιν without an object can be annoying), the commentator is imagining that these men in the simile are struggling over this small bit of land because they are poor and that wealthier men would not bother. Not only is this a tragic misunderstanding of human nature (wait tables or tend bar for only a few weeks and you will discover that the good tippers are not the wealthiest ones), but it is a poor reading of the epic, where the wealthiest and most powerful men alive are more than happy to keep fighting and ensuring that their people die.

The point of the simile is that provides a meeting point between the actors of the poem and the worlds of the audiences; the line that separates imaginative story in the audience’s minds from the lives they live becomes permeable and the hero meets the mortal in the shared experience. This is how the world becomes a part of but also shapes the poem.

This simile isn’t what interested me in Classics in the beginning, but it put me on the path I could not turn from. Anyone else have a similar tale?

Venetus A Book 12
Iliad 12, from the Venetus A Manuscript (via the Homer Multitext Project)

Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.5.14

 

“I think that just as certain Athletes lose ground to their opponents after they have won with too much ease, so too the Athenians have become worse because they stopped caring for themselves.”

 

᾿Εγὼ μέν, ἔφη, οἶμαι, ὁ Σωκράτης, ὥσπερ καὶ ἀθληταί τινες διὰ τὸ πολὺ ὑπερενεγκεῖν καὶ κρατιστεῦσαι καταρρᾳθυμήσαντες ὑστερίζουσι τῶν ἀντιπάλων, οὕτω καὶ ᾿Αθηναίους πολὺ διενεγκόντας ἀμελῆσαι ἑαυτῶν καὶ διὰτοῦτο χείρους γεγονέναι.